Mentor. Coach. Sponsor.

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Sponsor. It isn't a word that jumps out in professional contexts. Mentor or coach are roles and words that are far more ubiquitous in the professional world. Ask anyone and they either had/have a mentor or are searching for one. Find a mentor- certainly was advice I have heard over the years. Mentors can guide you and advise you; they can help you with your career narrative so you succeed.  

Coaches like mentors are there for your long term growth potential, and they are the ones to help you refine specific skills to help you succeed in the professional world. The workplace has recognized that to get the best from employees, employers should be helping them develop and grow in their professional careers. You can hire coaches to prepare for interviews, to write resumes, or to improve your communication style. For any and every area of weakness, there is someone out there with the expertise to help you manage and improve upon that weakness.  

But, then two weeks ago I attended a panel discussion on women in tech, and one of the speakers, Jacqueline Welch, SVP, Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Diversity Officer, stated that the three people we all need in our professional lives are: Mentor- Coach- Sponsor.

At that moment I nodded along in agreement but afterwards I was thinking about the term-sponsor. Who exactly is a sponsor and what role do they play in career development. So I looked into it and turns out that a sponsor is someone who is in a position of power and has the connections and influence to advocate on your behalf, and open up doors of opportunity for you. Like mentors, sponsors too can be from the company or institution you’re working at but not necessarily.

I look back on my career and I realized that while I thought I was fortunate to have a really great mentor in my early career, it now occurs to me that I had in fact a really great sponsor and mentor. She was someone who saw the potential in my before I did and while she nurtured that, she also opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have otherwise pursued or been considered for. The key being that she had the decision making power, and was able to bring me into those projects and positions.

However, in reflecting on the roles of sponsors I think, that we can extend this further to beyond just people in power. Think about the amazing peers and colleagues that you work with. How can you sponsor them or have them sponsor you? While they may not be the decision makers, they can advocate on your behalf. Let’s say that you hear of a new initiative that you feel that one of your colleagues would be great for, advocate on their behalf. Someone says something in a meeting and you know that another person needs to be involved in the new initiative, speak up on their behalf. And ask them to do the same for you. People who are invested in you as an individual will have no qualms recommending you or advocating for your professional growth. And neither should you. And then when you are in a position of power, continue to not just mentor or coach but also sponsor people.

Zaimah Khan